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Imran Khan's mission to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) meets King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 19 September 2018 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) meets King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 19 September 2018 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

The visit of Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia last week raised many questions related to his country's foreign policy and the changes that could be made during his tenure, especially with regard to its major partners in the region, such as the Kingdom.

Pakistan is under intense economic pressure, as the government has to deal with a large budget deficit. It owes about a trillion rupees in circular debt, and the deficit is more than two trillion rupees. Since the beginning of this year, the Pakistani rupee has lost about 20 per cent of its value. The stock market has gone from being the best performer in Asia, to the worst in the world.

There are two pressing issues facing the new government. In the next few months, treasury bills worth about four trillion rupees are set to expire. Furthermore, within the next 12 months it is obliged to pay about $8 billion in servicing foreign debt.

After the government declared that it is borrowing $2 billion from China, the rupee rate against the dollar improved from 130 to 122. Pakistan has borrowed up to $7 billion from China over the past two years.

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If Pakistan does not find a potential alternative lender, it will go back to the International Monetary Fund for its 14th bailout package since the 1980s. The estimated amount needed to ease the economic situation is at least $12 billion. According to a recent IMF report, the external financing needs of Pakistan are expected to rise from $21.5 billion (7.1 per cent of GDP) in 2017 to $45 billion (9 per cent of GDP), by 2023.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Imran Khan is making his first overseas trip as Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia, although it has become customary for Pakistani leaders to go there and include a pilgrimage to Islam's Holy Places in Makkah and Madinah. Such a visit thus provides the leadership with religious legitimacy. In Riyadh, post-Umrah, Khan was received by King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

The delegation accompanying the Prime Minister included his finance and foreign ministers, which reflects his intentions to ask for a Saudi bailout. He knows that India is working hard to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia, and he wants to tell the Saudis that Pakistan could help them make more money, and is not merely a liability. He has encouraged Bin Salman's Saudi Arabia 2030 strategy, and called on Riyadh to invest in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which represents a great opportunity.

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Although Pakistan did not support the Saudi siege on Qatar, which irked the Saudis, it supported the Kingdom against Canada over human rights. Khan also praised the King for his custodianship of the Holy Places and management of the latest Hajj season. This is extremely important for Saudi Arabia, with growing criticism of its perceived politicisation of the pilgrimage. As one of the most populous Muslim countries, Pakistan's endorsement leaves no room for disputes over the Saudi custodianship of Makkah and Madinah. The Pakistani Prime Minister also alluded briefly to Palestine and Kashmir, which reflects their position on his list of priorities.

Saudi Arabia has great wealth but insufficient military capability, so it has had to depend on regional and international alliances, to protect itself. Pakistan serves well in this regard.

It is likely that Riyadh will demand Pakistan's full alignment with its policies and take advantage of Islamabad's dire economic situation to oblige it to guarantee full military support against Iran if and when needed. The Saudi logic in this regard is very simple: "He who is not with us is against us." At the same time, though, Pakistan is not interested in embroiling its army in a devastating war with neighbouring Iran, and it seems that this message has reached the Saudis clearly. It will only intervene in the case of a direct attack by Iran on Saudi Arabia; such an attack is inconceivable.

Pakistan will not be part of a Saudi-US-Israeli alliance against Iran, as Riyadh proposes. Nor will it get involved in a war which could destroy its army while there is a still a long, open front with India, whose armed forces are six times larger than Pakistan's.

Imran Khan's attitude toward Iran is not very different to that of his predecessors. He sees the relationship as vital to maintain Pakistan's security, due to the sizeable Shia minority in his country. It should, though, be based on cooperation and not rivalry, especially given that his election campaign was based on reforming the domestic situation in his country. It would be impossible to have stability without raising the economic status of the general public; conciliation with neighbours is essential in this process.

It is inconceivable that Khan could deal with all of these problems and enter into a feud with Iran for the benefit of Saudi Arabia and others. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE asked Pakistan to send its army to fight with the coalition in Yemen, the parliament rejected the request, which led to tension with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Under pressure, the government of Nawaz Sharif convinced the army to send troops on non-combat missions in 2016, without parliament's knowledge.

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It is important to understand that Pakistan's international relations are dominated by the army. It is the de facto ruler of the state. Prime Minister Khan, like his predecessors, cannot govern solely according to his programmes and vision.

So how will Imran Khan balance his relationship with the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran? Both countries are important to Pakistan so he will need a sophisticated approach. It looks as if both he and the army have chosen an ambivalent position covered by moral and religious principles, and will want to play a role in reconciliation among Muslims; Khan has said that he is saddened by fraternal Islamic fighting and bloodshed, citing the examples of Libya and Syria. This may not be enough for Saudi Arabia, which would love to have the Pakistani army on its side against Iran.

Although Riyadh will most likely fail to drag Pakistan to where it wants, this will not lead to a fallout between the two sides, for Saudi interests in Pakistan are greater than a timely disagreement. Yet, it could have a negative impact on the warmth of the relationship, with Riyadh limiting its financial support for Islamabad simply to maintain relations and prevent Pakistan from slipping towards Iran. However, if that is the case, it would not represent the kind of real recovery for the Pakistani economy that Imran Khan hopes for.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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